An article in today's LSG claims that roposed cuts to legal aid threaten to undermine a decade of pro bono work - today being the start of the 10th annual pro Bono Week.
A Law Society survey in the spring revealed that just under half of solicitors
in private practice had undertaken pro bono work in the previous 12 months, conducting an average of 55 hours each, with an estimated total value of £518m.
But the leaders of the Law Society, Bar Council and Institute of Legal Executives have warned that the government’s proposed funding cuts could limit the ability of the legal profession to continue providing pro bono assistance.
The first Pro Bono Yearbook, published today by the three representative groups, highlighted the achievements of the legal pro bono community over the past 10 years, but voiced concern for the future.
It stresses that the removal of key areas of law from the scope of legal aid will result in the loss of expertise of lawyers practising in those areas. This in turn will reduce their ability to provide training and supervision for lawyers who practise in other fields but give free advice in areas such as social welfare.
In addition it notes the consequent rise in the number of litigants in person, resulting in an increasing demand for free legal assistance.
The yearbook stresses that pro bono work can and should never be a substitute for a properly funded justice system.
In a foreword to the book, the leaders of the three professions - bar chair Peter Lodder QC; Law Society president John Wotton and ILEX president Susan Silver, say: ‘A properly funded and organised system of legal aid is a fundamental requirement of a decent, just and progressive society and one of the foundations for the rule of law. Pro bono should never be a substitute for that, and nor should it try to be.’
In the review, the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith QC said lawyers have been volunteering their services for free since ‘time immemorial’, but said that over the past decade there has been a ‘paradigm shift’ in efforts to coordinate pro bono activity and work collaboratively across the legal profession with the voluntary sector and other professionals.
Goldsmith said: ‘As we look to the next decade and face unprecedented change in the legal landscape, new challenges will require innovative solutions and fresh approaches.’
Wotton said: ‘Pro bono work demonstrates a commitment that is anchored in the ethos and values of the legal profession. By volunteering their time and expertise, lawyers help hundreds of thousands of people, community groups and charities each year and this week we celebrate that contribution.’ Such efforts, he said, will be undermined by the government's plans: ‘Without legal aid, expertise in areas like welfare, debt and housing will dissipate and the ability to train the pro bono lawyers who enhance provision will be permanently destroyed. The proposed cuts therefore represent a double assault on access to justice.’
Lodder said pro bono organisations had become fixed at the heart of the legal community over the past decade, but they ‘must not be taken for granted’. He said: ‘If the government continues to cut legal aid, many more people will be unable to access legal help when they need it.
‘There are limits to what can be provided pro bono. So when we applaud the work of lawyers providing free legal advice
and assistance to those in need, and the staff who support them up and down the country, we must also call on the government to think again.’
ILEX president Susan Silver added: ‘Lawyers across the country, from all legal backgrounds, give an immense amount of their own time for free and for no personal gain other than knowing they are helping those in need.’
She warned: ‘If legal aid provisions continue to be cut, pro bono lawyers will not be able to stretch their time or necessarily have the specialist skills to support those in need, who suddenly find they no longer have access to the justice system.’
National pro bono week opens today with a debate organised by the National Pro Bono Centre, exploring how the changing legal landscape is likely to affect the delivery of pro bono work over the next 10 years. It will be followed by a panel discussion, chaired by the attorney general’s pro bono envoy and trustee of the National Bro Bono Centre, Michael Napier QC.